by Al Maxey

Issue #629 ------- August 14, 2014
The Mass is the greatest blasphemy of
God, and the highest idolatry upon earth, an
abomination the like of which has never been in
Christendom since the time of the Apostles.

Martin Luther (1483-1546)
Table Talk

Sacrament or Ordinance?
Thoughts on a Theological Divide

Charles Evans Hughes, Sr. (1862-1948) was an American statesman, lawyer and Republican politician from New York. He served as the 36th Governor of New York (1907-1910), Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States (1910-1916), United States Secretary of State (1921-1925), a judge on the Court of International Justice (1928-1930), and the 11th Chief Justice of the United States (1930-1941). He was the Republican candidate in the 1916 U.S. Presidential election, losing narrowly to incumbent President Woodrow Wilson. In a speech given before the American Law Institute on May 7, 1936, Chief Justice Hughes made the following insightful declaration: "How amazing it is that, in the midst of controversies on every conceivable subject, one should expect unanimity of opinion upon difficult legal questions! In the highest ranges of thought, in theology, philosophy and science, we find differences of view on the part of the most distinguished experts: theologians, philosophers and scientists. The history of scholarship is a record of disagreements. And when we deal with questions relating to principles of law and their applications, we do not suddenly rise into a stratosphere of icy certainty."

The failing of far too many disciples of Christ (including biblical scholars and theologians) is that when they arrive at their various theological conclusions they have a tendency to perceive them as absolute certainties. This, in turn, motivates them to attempt to impose their perceptions and practices upon all others in the hope of forcing uniformity of thought. During the past 2000 years, as Christianity spread throughout the inhabited earth, men and women who were convinced that their theological insights were the only ones consistent with the inspired revelation of God, debated and denounced all who dared to differ with them. "False teacher," "heretic," "liberal," and other strong pejoratives were cast back and forth between the many sects and factions of Christendom. The result, sadly, was/is a woefully divided church, with each group assuming they, and they alone, had a monopoly on ultimate Truth in all matters. Such appalling arrogance among disciples of Christ is a reality of history with which we are all quite familiar. Each group insists that unity in the One Body can be achieved if only all other groups agree with them on each and every theological perception and practice. What they fail to realize is: this would only lead to uniformity, not genuine unity. In Christendom there will never be uniformity of thought and practice on every subject ... and there doesn't need to be! You don't have to be my twin to be my brother. As long as we have the same Father, we are in the One Family. The walls of religious separation will only come down when we finally realize this great truth. Until then, disciples will continue to debate, defame and even seek to destroy other disciples, convinced in their own minds that they are doing God's will, and that He is pleased with their warfare.

There is nothing wrong with disciples of Christ differing with one another on a host of theological matters. We don't all have to be alike. What we have to do is love and accept one another in spite of these differences (which is one of the major truths the apostle Paul sought to convey in Romans 14). I have some very strong convictions about a number of spiritual and theological issues, and I seek to personally live by those convictions. I am more than happy to share these convictions with others, and even discuss them with those who are genuinely interested in dialogue. I am also more than willing to defend my views, but I will never demand that all others fall in step with my own understandings, nor am I overly interested in drawn out, heated debate with those who differ with me. Yes, there was a time, many years ago, when I would jump at the chance to "duke it out" with other disciples. I even enjoyed the squabbling. But, those days are past. My thinking now is perhaps best summed up by this statement: "Come now, let us reason together" (Isaiah 1:18a). Dialogue instead of debate, reflection instead of retaliation, makes far more sense. Yes, by all means, stand by your convictions and be willing to defend them, but do so with love for those who differ, and with a willingness to be open-minded, as together we all seek for greater understanding, appreciation and application of God's will.

With these thoughts and principles in mind, let us briefly examine one of the major areas of doctrine that has caused dissention and division in Christendom for centuries. It has to do with whether certain practices should be considered as being sacraments or ordinances. This affects every disciple of Christ to some degree, especially when it comes to our perception and practice of the Lord's Supper and baptism. Before we get to these, however, we need to define the terms.

  1. Sacrament -- This comes from the Ecclesiastical Latin word "sacramentum," which conveys the idea of something that is sacred or holy. This word never appears in the Bible, but rather reflects a theological concept that would flourish in later years as the church became increasingly institutionalized. Although there are various views as to the significance of this term, as a rule, when one speaks of a sacrament, the meaning is: "an act by which some divine grace or blessing is imparted to us." If the sacrament is not performed, or if it is performed incorrectly, then the blessing is withheld by God. No sacrament = no blessing, for the specific blessing is imparted only through the sacrament.

  2. Ordinance -- An ordinance does not rise to the level of a sacrament. Rather, it refers to an established religious rite that is based upon a divine command. They are necessary, in that they are commanded, but their purpose is symbolic instead of sacramental.

In Roman Catholicism there are seven sacraments: baptism, eucharist, reconciliation (penance), confirmation, marriage, holy orders, anointing the sick (last rites or extreme unction). These seven were codified in the documents of the Council of Trent (1545-1563), which states in Canon IV -- "If anyone saith that the sacraments of the New Law are not necessary unto salvation, but superfluous; and that, without them, or without the desire thereof, men obtain of God, through faith alone, the grace of justification, let him be anathema." The Catechism of the Catholic Church declares these sacraments to be acts "by which divine life is dispensed." The divine blessing, therefore, comes to us "ex opere operato" (by the very fact of being administered). In other words, God's grace (whether justification, forgiveness, salvation, etc.) is channeled through the sacrament itself. Since one's standing with God is affected by these sacraments, it therefore becomes critical that they be administered accurately. For this reason, sacramentalists tend to place great emphasis on getting every detail of the observance of the sacrament exactly right "according to the pattern."

In time, there arose a number of reformers: men who, through their study of the Scriptures, came to realize that the sacramental view espoused by Roman Catholicism was not the biblical view. They began to speak out against this theological perspective, and in time began to reduce the number of sacraments. The eucharist and baptism came to be regarded as the only two real sacraments, although in time these too were stripped of their sacramental force, and were regarded instead as ordinances of God for the church. Thus, they are necessary, since they are commanded by the Lord, but they are not the very channel through which divine grace is imparted. In the Baptist Confession of 1689, the word "sacrament" was rejected in connection with the Lord's Supper and baptism; these two, instead, were declared to be "ordinances of perpetual and sovereign institution." It was the belief of these reformers that these two ordinances were symbolic in nature, representing or reflecting a greater reality. Thus, disciples of Christ submitted to and observed them not only because they were commanded, but because they were visible testimonies to the reality of God's grace through the giving of His Son. Thus, in love and through faith we give testimony to, through baptism and the Lord's Supper, the free gift of God's grace to all who believe.

"Early leaders of the Stone-Campbell Movement rejected the term 'sacrament' as scripturally and theologically inappropriate" [The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, p. 580]. They chose to use the term "ordinance" instead. Even then, these reformers struggled with their previous indoctrination on sacramentalism, and they tended to carry over some aspects of this thinking in their teaching and practice with respect to the "ordinances" of baptism and the Lord's Supper. "Alexander Campbell and others in the early Movement, without using the term 'sacrament,' referred to both baptism and the Lord's Supper as a 'means of enjoyment' of the grace uniquely communicated therein. Moreover, Campbell defined an 'ordinance' quasi-sacramentally as a 'means of grace,' 'a specific demonstration of divine grace or spiritual power in reference to some effect no other way attainable'" [ibid, p. 663]. To suggest that a certain divine blessing is "no other way attainable" than through a specific religious rite is to invest that rite with a sacramental quality. Today, in our faith-heritage, we see disciples struggling with this same theological problem: they refuse to use the term "sacrament" in connection with certain rites, yet they continue to preach and practice a sacramental view of that rite. "Used in this way there seems to be little functional difference between 'ordinance' and 'sacrament'" [ibid, p. 579].

It is my firm conviction that justification, sanctification and salvation are not conveyed or conferred through outward rites or rituals. We are saved by grace through faith, and not on the basis of anything we ourselves have done or have allowed another to do to or for us. Within my own faith-heritage (Churches of Christ) there are still many who view baptism sacramentally (although they will vehemently deny this), convinced that God bestows His gift of salvation ONLY when one is "raised from the watery grave." If a man believes, repents, confesses and is walking down the aisle to be baptized, and he drops dead before getting to the water, they will insist this man is LOST. Why? Because salvation is imparted AT BAPTISM, and not a second sooner! Brethren, that is sacramentalism! And it is a false doctrine, in my view. Yes, baptism, just like the Lord's Supper, is a command of our Lord. Thus, we obey. But both of these acts are representative in nature, NOT redemptive. They are symbols, not sacraments. They reflect our saving reality, they don't impart it. Because of our great love for our Lord, we obey His commands and ordinances; we do so not to be saved, but because we are saved. Many within my heritage (and many within other denominational groups) will agree with me on this with respect to the Lord's Supper, but they won't agree with me on this with respect to baptism. Instead, they will insist "baptism doth now save us," and they will sever fellowship with anyone who dares to differ with them on this.

It is my belief, based upon years of study and reflection, that sacramentalism is a false doctrine and practice. It, in my view, is completely contrary to the truths expressed in God's Word. I have dealt extensively with the rise and effects of sacramentalism on the Lord's Supper in my book One Bread, One Body: An Examination of Eucharistic Expectation, Evolution and Extremism, and I have dealt just as extensively with the rise and effects of sacramentalism on baptism in my book Immersed By One Spirit: Rethinking the Purpose and Place of Baptism in NT Theology and Practice. I have plenty of these books on hand (as well as my other two books) for those who would like signed copies. They are also available from the publisher and through various online outlets (such as, Barnes & Noble, etc.). They may also be purchased for your Kindle at a very reasonable price. It is my prayer that as more and more disciples restudy and reflect upon these matters that an increasing number will return to the simplicity of the Good News that we are saved by grace through faith, and not by anything we ourselves can accomplish (Eph. 2:8-9), no matter how noble or good those acts or rites may be. "Reconciliation with God is therefore achieved not through ordinances but through Christ, who abolished the law of commandments and ordinances" [International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 3, p. 614]. Yes, Jesus Christ "abolished in His flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances" (Eph. 2:15).

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Readers' Reflections

From an Author in Kentucky:

Al, thanks for your article on "Intertestamental Philosophies." I have long been interested in this line of study. In fact, I began writing something several years ago on the persistence of such ideas as are found in the teachings of the ancient Greek philosophers, but quickly found that the subject was way beyond my capability to trace out. I am presently reading N. T. Wright's "Surprised by Scripture," in which he brings out that the philosophy of Epicureanism was the source and basis of the concepts that played into the Enlightenment and the development of Modernism. It is only a step to realize that this was, in turn, the fertile seedbed from which both the Reformation and the Restoration movements sprang. No, you are right: old philosophies do not die, they just get reworked and woven into the thinking of humanity in new ways. This is why fresh study and analysis of the Bible is such a vitally important endeavor. Scholars who challenge the traditionally accepted interpretations are often the greatest heroes of the Faith. They expose the fallacies and assumptions on which whole systems of doctrine have been built.

From a Reader in Georgia:

I enjoyed reading your new book From Ruin To Resurrection: Reflections on the Nature of Man and his Eternal Destiny, although it really messed with my whole concept of death. I spent a lot of time with this book, and it was very helpful. It was good to get my head around the topic, and a person would have a hard time getting a more thorough book to help do that! Good stuff! I learned a lot from reading this book, and it changed my mind on the matter (and that's not easy to do at my age!).

From a Reader in Tennessee:

I'm adding your new book (From Ruin To Resurrection) to my reading list, although I need to finish reading Edward Fudge's "The Fire That Consumes" first.

From a Reader in Texas:

I am highly recommending to everyone that they read your new book From Ruin To Resurrection. I am only on chapter 10, but the case you have laid out in this book, and in other books on this topic, has me wondering why so many people who claim to have studied the Scriptures can still believe the concepts brought into Christianity through Plato and other Greek philosophers!

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